Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mary Magdalene's Feast Day from Llanes to Vézelay

Today honors the energy of the divine and feminine grace of Mary Magdalene. Having just come from making the pilgrimage to Vézelay in Burgundy, France, where her basilica honors the highest point of that ancient Gallo-Roman hilltop village, I am even more appreciative of her beauty.

This spring I hiked to Vézelay from Avallon on a day that was threatening heavy rain throughout. As much as I love to hike into wild and unknown territory, I resisted starting. I resisted and resisted and then I knew deep down that if I let the rain stop me, I would regret it for the rest of my life. I forged forward through my resistance. 

As soon as I set one foot before the other—finding my way down the steep fortified hillside of Avallon toward the Cousin river and into the Morvan forest—that magic took hold that every pilgrim knows: The road began to show me signs and my way was clear, one step at a time. Prior rains had washed out parts of the trail. I lost it. I found it. I lost it again, but always found it again. Song birds punctuated my triumphs, my mind taking their song as a victory dance. White Burgundian cows munching on lemon yellow mustard flowers sauntered over to greet me, making me pause to see where to pick up the trail across the field. Once, was that a snake that slithered loudly to the right, making me notice the trail marker I'd missed painted on a leaf-covered rock? Even the threatening weather ceased. Grace punctuated every turn, no matter how trying some turns were. The expected heavy rains did not arrive. The storm clouds literally parted and dramatic striated rays of sun shined through.

It took eight hours through the forest and the rising and falling vine and mustard covered hills of Burgundy to arrive in Vézelay. First, the hill appeared, the highest in the vicinity, and grew as I walked. Then, the towers of the basilica became apparent. Finally, the scorpion shape of the hill—as one book described it—upon which the church sat revealed the pathway from the scorpion's tail at the foot to its crowning head at the top. The pilgrim’s path to the basilica was like walking along a rising spine, some ancient kundalini that the stonemasons and monks must have known implicitly.

And when I finally entered into the nave of striated light-play from the high arches of bicolored stone, Vespers was about to begin. Sound and light in perfect harmony swirled up and down the basilica and entered into the crown of my head. 

An active monastic community of nuns and monks live in Vézelay and carry on the sacred traditions within this medieval Romanesque church dedicated to this Lady of Grace. Her crypt is beneath the nave, built of the stone carved out of the hill. The small chamber allows visitors to sit and meditate undisturbed. 

The strongest feeling, one that recurred each time I entered the basilica, was balance. It is a place of harmony and balance, between male and female, heaven and earth, god and mortal, sound and light.

Another church that I love, that is also dedicated to Mary Magdalene, is in the heart of the fishing town of Llanes, along the northern Spanish coast in Asturias. On a smaller but no less powerful scale, it also offers the experience of harmony and balance. 

Here, I love how this photo of its altar captured a fleeting streak of light.

To read more about Llanes and the surviving expressions of the ancient feminine divine that holds foot in northern Spain, as well as into southern France, the fabled territory where Mary Magdalene may have lived during her later years, please read my piece for Perceptive Travel, The Goddess Still Lives Here and also see my book, The Spiritual Traveler Spain.

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